By 1948 the war was already three years gone, yet Italy stills looks exhausted—back then, as today, the process of recovery could seem endless. Life went on, grudgingly, chaotically. So in some tattered, flaking, sun-beaten suburb, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) emerges from a mass of jobless men to accept employment pasting up posters of Rita Hayworth. Any work’s to be envied, regardless of how menial, and his peers are far from congratulatory, especially since they all know Antonio doesn’t possess the one item required for the gig: a bicycle. But Antonio rushes off to find his wife Maria (Lianella Carrell), who solves the problem easily enough. She sells their bedclothes. We can sleep without them, she says. The money the sheets gain from the pawnbroker is just enough to get Antonio’s old Fides out of hock.
Antonio’s new career however is short-lived. His Fides is stolen. We were waiting for this, of course, the pay-off on the title. But the pay-off isn’t complete until Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), a shoeshine boy, have scoured the city streets in search of the thief, and finally, out of pure desperation, Antonio himself becomes a thief. This is the most persuasive point of the movie, that we are all potential bicycle thieves, subordinate to the vagaries of money, opportunity, and luck. Antonio’s story is famously simple: guy loses bike, guy tries to get bike back. Yet the story of Bicycle Thieves lies not just in Antonio’s actions but in the faces, gestures and voices of everyone he encounters, crowds of mostly ordinary, equally struggling people who collectively alternate between moments of solidarity and mercenary measures. The movie starts with Antonio emerging from a crowd and by its end he’ll vanish into the crowd once more. One of my favourite things about Bicycle Thieves is its ambiguity as to whether that crowd is meant to offer any consolation.
Vittorio De Sica directed several films that would become central to the movement known as Italian neo-realism, Bicycle Thieves chief among them. It was shot mostly in real locations, mostly under natural light, with non-professional actors—though their performances are certainly theatrical, you might say very “Italian,” nonetheless. The movie spoke of banality, drudgery, fleeting pleasures, and simple tasks, yet there’s much diversion, and there’s tremendous visual poetry in Carlo Montuori’s fluid camerawork, the images of bikes and ladders flooding the streets, the busy market place, the chorus of street-sweepers, and in an especially memorable scene, men running to take shelter from a downpour while carrying gramophones. De Sica finds beauty in hard times. Some viewers grumble about the aestheticization of poverty, but I’m more concerned with the romanticization of naïveté. I hope I’ve made it clear, should it need repeating, that Bicycle Thieves is of monumental historical importance and is a pretty great movie. The resigned finale, with Maggiorani's speechlessness, is terribly moving. But it’s also a movie that strains a bit for my taste. It’s tough to make a fully fleshed-out story when the story’s trying so hard to make a point. It’s noble to speak for those who have no voice, but it’s precarious too.
It’s instructive to compare Bicycle Thieves not only to, say, the work of Roberto Rossellini, that other great, far harsher Italian neo-realist most famous for Rome: Open City (1945), but also to other movies with similar themes and tactics. Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (50) depicted impoverished kids in Mexico City, but it eschewed the sentimental, embracing petty cruelties and perversion, imbuing characters with greater specificity and greater possibility. Charles Burnett has paid tribute to Bicycle Thieves as a formative influence, but Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (77) portrays the plight of Los Angeles’ downtrodden with far more idiosyncrasy, humour, and personal vision. The Dardenne Brothers, in movies like L’Enfant (05), revitalized neo-realism’s task-oriented narrative structures through a distinctly dogged, rivetingly relentless mise en scene. Most recently, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (08) used the premise of a girl search for a lost dog—a premise superficially similar to De Sica’s Umberto D. (52)—to comment on the status of the non-upwardly mobile or economically disadvantaged in contemporary America. While actually watching Wendy and Lucy I was completely immersed in Wendy’s personal, immediate story—its commentary on the larger social issues started to sink in only later on. By contrast, while watching Bicycle Thieves, for all of its marvels, I could rarely forget that the movie was building a thesis.